What The Guardian and The Lancet aren’t telling you about the COVID-19 situation in Nicaragua

Statement from the Embassy of Nicaragua

We are deeply concerned at a number of reprehensible and mendacious articles smearing the Government, People and Sandinista Revolution of Nicaragua. These include: “President nowhere to be seen as Nicaragua shuns coronavirus curbs”, (The Guardian, 8th April), “‘Our players are afraid’: Nicaraguan football ploughs on amid the crisis”, (The Guardian, 1st April) and “Love in the time of COVID-19: negligence in the Nicaraguan response” (The Lancet).

The central claim of all three articles is that Nicaragua is out of step with the WHO, that there is insufficient public education about social distancing and hygiene, and that our health system is inadequate (The Lancet). Added to this are lurid accusations in The Guardian that our Government secretly controls the independent Nicaraguan Football League, that President Daniel Ortega “might even have died” and is “so detached (that) his absence hardly mattered at all”, that there is a “macabre plan” underlying these supposed misdeeds, that an “uprising” in 2018 suffered a “brutal police crackdown”, and, in the most despicable, shameful and disgusting smear of all, that our democratic Sandinista Government (described as a “regime”) “actually wanted to rid itself of part of the population”. This in regards to a country which has suffered centuries of actual genocide, oppression and occupation, first at the hands of racist and colonialist foreign occupiers, and then externally armed right-wing dictatorships and terrorists.

These accusations are mostly completely unsubstantiated – and based entirely on the journalists’ own assertion, or hearsay from unnamed sources or opposition activists -, or in a small minority of cases, some authority is quoted, but is done so out of context and with omission of several relevant and important facts. Such unfounded speculation is especially irresponsible and dangerous during the COVID-19 pandemic, by painting a false picture of an out of control crisis, at a time when misinforming the public can have fatal consequences – as the Guardian itself reported last month.

The truth is that Nicaragua’s responsible measures to contain COVID-19 are internationally recognised and supported by, and in full coordination with, the World Health Organisation and in regional and bilateral cooperation with multiple countries, and that Nicaragua is an open, democratic and socially progressive society which guarantees freedom of speech, conscience and human rights to all its citizens – all of which we will prove below, point by point.

At the time of writing, Nicaragua has four active cases of COVID-19, two full recoveries, one tragic death of a person with severe underlying health problems, and three people quarantined who either came into close contact with the confirmed cases or who have come from affected countries. Contrary to the conspiracy theories propagated by both the Guardian and The Lancet, for which no evidence whatsoever is provided, these are the figures reported by the Central American Integration System, which publishes daily reports, and are the only figures accepted and recognised as reliable by the World Health Organisation.

Nicaragua has worked in full cooperation with the World Health Organisation since the beginning of the pandemic. Nicaragua has chosen a measured and phased approach, with similarities to Sweden’s strategy to tackle the pandemic, balancing multiple factors. Nicaragua is currently in phase 2 of its efforts against the COVID-19 pandemic, after the successful implementation of Phase 1, which is detailed below. Should local transmission emerge and the country’s resilient healthcare system require it, stronger measures can be imposed.

On January 21st, the day after Chinese authorities reported a third death from COVID-19, the Nicaraguan Health Ministry, together with the Pan American Health Association (the regional branch of the WHO in Central America), announced an epidemiological alert. Ten days later, the Ministry of Health published a detailed protocol (referenced here in English) based on WHO best practice, communicating the clearly defined national strategy across all areas of Government and Civil Society to spread out the number of any possible infections to avoid any potential overcrowding of the health system at once, and to coordinate the resources of the public health system with all health care institutions in Nicaragua, including private sector hospitals, the country’s Social Security health care system and the Nicaraguan army’s health facilities.

Additionally, 37,206 health workers and 250,000 volunteers have been trained and are working according to WHO guidelines for the pandemic, and over 2 million households have been visited by Nicaragua’s health brigades at least once (in a country with a total population of 6.5m), many more than once, for testing, education, provision of necessary sanitary equipment, moral support in these difficult times, and more. On March 3rd a WHO approved molecular biology laboratory was extended to allow testing for COVID-19.

Furthermore, from the very outset of the health alert in February the government has launched a mass public awareness campaign (supported by the aforementioned health brigades and abundant printed and audio-visual educational material) which has stressed proper hand-washing, taking care to protect others when sneezing or coughing and keeping a physical distance of at least 1.5 metres as well as carefully cleaning constantly-used surfaces. People wanting to self-isolate have been free to do so, including school and university students.

Moreover, Nicaragua’s work to contain COVID-19 has been recognised by numerous multilateral institutions and bilateral partners. Ana Emilia Solís, the WHO/PAHO representative in Nicaragua, has stated that “Nicaragua is working according to World Health Organisation Guidelines”, and highlighted that Nicaragua’s community based health system ensures the involvement of communities, quick and appropriate actions, and that official advice and orders are respected.

Regional and international co-operation are central to Nicaragua’s response to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Together with the Heads of State and Government of Belize, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama, the President of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, signed and is actively participating in the collective implementation of the Central American Integration System (CAIS) Contingency Plan, to date the world’s most comprehensive regional co-operation plan against the virus, which is now backed by US$1.96bn from the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI), which goes towards hospitals and equipment, staff, testing, education campaigns, economic stimulus, and other vital areas. CABEI recognises Nicaragua’s alignment with the CAIS Contingency Plan and has therefore at the time of writing delivered all allocated funds and tests in a timely manner to the country.

In another sign of this spirit of regional unity, the CAIS has also released an official video of the Heads of State and Government of all member countries, including President Ortega, sending messages of hope and determination to their people.

Additionally, Taiwan has given continuous technical and financial support, including the donation of 29,000 sanitary masks up to the time of writing, knowledge sharing, and an additional US$1m aid grant on top of regular support for Nicaragua’s social and economic development. Cuba has also sent brigades of doctors, nurses and experts to support Nicaragua’s efforts, and is working with Nicaragua on the production of the drug interferon alfa-2b, which it is believed could help to treat the disease, and which would be produced at the only public sector pharmaceutical plant in the region which produces vaccines, located in Nicaragua, which is a joint venture with the Russian Federation. Nicaragua is also working alongside the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), thereby benefiting from the expertise of Chinese authorities and experts.

Because of the progressive policies of the Sandinista Governments since 2007, Nicaragua is in a relatively strong position. 353 new clinics and surgeries have been built across the country and 15 primary public hospitals built or renovated, giving a total of 19 currently prepared to operate, with six more under construction. This is supported by the aforementioned healthcare brigades, already a cornerstone of an inclusive healthcare strategy to reach people in remote areas or housebound. In comparison, from 1990-2006, only four hospitals were built while the population almost doubled.

Further to this, in addition to the recently inaugurated (aforementioned) WHO approved molecular biology laboratory capable of analysis and testing for various diseases, since 2018 the country hosts a pharmaceutical plant with the capacity to produce 12 million influenza vaccines per year – this is where the production of interferon alfa-2b is planned to occur. A generally healthier population of course takes the strain off the health system in the time of a pandemic.

The aforementioned Ana Emilia Solís of the PAHO said in October 2019 that “PAHO has a special commitment to Nicaragua because it has achieved great progress in health indicators like national vaccine coverage, maternal mortality, child nutrition, and others. And Nicaraguan authorities maintain a clear perspective of what aspects need to be improved and the ways in which PAHO can support this work through technical cooperation.”

For his part, Dante Mossei, President of the aforementioned Central American Bank of Economic Integration, said in the same month: “Nicaragua has a perfect execution rate of its project portfolio and serves as an example for other Central American countries on how to plan investment projects and implement them efficiently”.

The domestic far-right, as always supported by external powers, who previously took no interest in healthcare in Nicaragua, now demand the overnight imposition of draconian measures. The dangers of this have been detailed by – among others -, Kenan Malik in the article Whether in the UK or the developing world, we’re not all in coronavirus together, published in The Guardian; David Pilling in the article “In Developing Countries, the Lockdown Cure could be Worse than the Disease”, published in the Financial Times; and Mari Pangestu, the World Bank Managing Director for Development Policy and Partnerships, in the article “For the poorest countries, the full danger from coronavirus is only just coming into view”; published in The Telegraph – hardly Sandinista mouthpieces.

Further to the points made in those articles, it is also worth noting that in a developing country, acquiring unpayable levels of debt invariably leads very quickly to stringent austerity and wholesale privatisation imposed by rich countries on behalf of the lending banks, which quite literally kill, as Latin America knows too well.

Whether knowingly or not, by repeatedly replicating unchallenged smears against Nicaragua, The Guardian plays its part in a systematic disinformation campaign against Nicaragua in the context of an ongoing co-ordinated external and internal regime change operation by extreme right wing elements and powerful external backers, which failed first via the ballot box in the last three democratic elections, then via violent terrorism, then via economic warfare (including illegal sanctions by foreign governments), and who now resort to attempting to use the COVID-19 pandemic for political gain. The true nature and interests of the perpetrators of this ongoing campaign has been exposed in the excellent film “Nicaragua: The April Crisis and Beyond”, by the American peace activist, journalist and human rights lawyer, Professor Dan Kovalik.

Far from being a repressive dictatorship, the Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega enjoys widespread popular support and was re-elected in 2016 with 72% of the vote in elections recognised as free and fair by the Organization of American States. Since returning to power in 2007, the Sandinistas have achieved a remarkable social transformation, reducing poverty by half in a decade and absolute poverty by 75%, achieving food sovereignty, and expanding human rights to nutrition, healthcare, housing, land, education, sanitation, electricity, transportation, connectivity and participation in the economy and society to millions of previously excluded people. Nicaragua is now the world’s fifth most Gender Equal country according to the World Economic Forum, has the third most gender equal cabinet according to UN Women (58.8% of Ministers are women) and is ranked by NGO REN21 as within the world’s top 10 for renewable energy (which provides 80% of the country’s electricity).

In conclusion, the Government of Nicaragua has been responsible in its actions and transparent with the population about its strategy since the beginning of the outbreak, implementing a viable, balanced and sustainable response to COVID-19, motivated by the same good sense, responsibility and commitment to social justice, equality, human rights and international solidarity and cooperation, which the Sandinista Government has displayed since 2007.